Date:    Tue, 6 Aug 1996 05:49:22 CDT
Sender:  H-Net/H-Urban Seminar on History of Community Organizing 
         & Community-Based Development 
From:    Wendy Plotkin 
Subject: Alinsky & Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council
Posted by Wendy Plotkin 
In light of the discussion of Alinsky (including Bob Slayton's review
of Horwitt's LET THEM CALL ME REBEL and the presentation of Randy
Stoecker's and Susan Stall's paper on Alinskyite and feminist styles of
organizing) I thought it would be useful to bridge the past and
upcoming discussions of Alinsky, the IAF, and contemporary organizing
styles with a brief "biography" of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood
Council (BYNC), Alinsky's first community organization.  Both Bob
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986) and Sanford Horwitt in LET
Alfred A. Knopf, 1989) offer similar accounts of the creation of the
According to Slayton, the 1930s Depression in the U.S. itself was a
catalyst for the BYNC.  The loss of employment it engendered in this
working class neighborhood overwhelmed the resources of the traditional
"welfare" institutions, such as the churches, ethnic societies, and
charity organizations.    Although the New Deal led to federal
assistance for the neighborhood, it also was inadequate in dealing with
the deprivation of insufficient food, fuel, and funds for housing
maintenance.  Also, with New Deal resources distributed across the
nation, it was largely up to local leaders to demand and/or negotiate
for as much of the federal largesse as possible.  Thus, the stage was
set for an effort by local leaders and residents to establish new local
institutions to express their interests to existing political and
corporate institutions.
The corporate institutions that dominated the Back of the Yards were
the packinghouses described in Upton Sinclair's 1906 THE JUNGLE.
Protective of their own interests during the Depression, their policies
extended the earlier, pre-Depression policies of low pay, poor working
conditions, and little or no job security.  With the economy of the
neighborhood so dependent on these employers, they were among the most
important neighborhood institutions, at a time when neighborhood and
employment were intertwined to a greater degree than was to be true in
the commuting world of the post-war period.
Thus, it is not surprising that prior to the BYNC, the attempts to
organize the neighborhood were led by labor and the fledgling Congress
of Industrial Organizations (CIO).  The CIO was the liberal union
affilation that emerged in 1935 as an alternative to the trade-based
and conservative American Federation of Labor.  The CIO assisted in
1936 in the establishment of the local Packinghouse Workers Organizing
Committee (PWOC), and took aim immediately at Armour Company, one of
the most important industries in the neighborhood.  According to
Slayton, the PWOC brought a unity to the neighborhood that overrode
some of the previously divisive ethnic and religious rivalries -- in
spite of a tremendous amount of red-baiting based in part on the
important involvement of Communists in the CIO.[1]
Another antecedent to the BYNC was a "council of [neighborhood] clubs"
organized in 1937 by Aaron Hurwitz, the publisher of the neighborhood
newspaper that eventually became the official organ of the BYNC.
BYNC itself was a cooperative effort between Alinsky and Joseph Meegan,
the manager of the Chicago Park District's Davis Square Park, that
culminated in a first meeting of the new organization in July, 1939.
According to both authors, Alinsky and Meegan shared a distaste for
traditional social workers and settlement houses, including the
University of Chicago Settlement House located in the stockyards
district.  They believed in identifying and involving neighborhood
residents as leaders.[2] Alinsky had been sent to the Stockyards
neighborhood by the Chicago Area Project (an anti-delinquency project)
to assist the neighborhood with its delinquency problem, applying the
Project's approach that the causes of delinquency were deeply embedded
in the overall problems of the neighborhood.  Alinsky was a Jewish
outsider who saw Meegan as the most promising local leader to organize
the neighborhood.  Meegan was tied to the Catholic hierarchy and as a
layman was, according to Alinsky, a better choice as an organizer than
any of the local clergymen due to the competition and conflicts that
existed among the local churches.  As the manager of the neighborhood's
Davis Square Park, Meegan had also moved beyond mere administration of
the park to obtain significant social and welfare services, including
the provision of a government-subsidized lunch program -- thus
displaying a lack of concern for bureaucratic boundaries that was
essential to Alinsky's critique of officialdom.
In creating the BYNC, Alinsky and Meegan saw this new community
organization as one that would cooperate and extend the efforts of the
PWOC and labor organizing into all aspects of community life, outside
of employment.  The community and the union thus formed an alliance --
the union addressed community-wide issues outside of the salaries and
security of the workers, and the BYNC took on the cause of the PWOC as
its most important initial endeavour.  The early days of the BYNC were
very much devoted to the PWOC, which continued to aim its forces
against Armour and its defiance of the landmark New Deal legislation
(the 1935 Wagner Act) allowing the formation of labor unions and
requiring them where workers voted for them.  The day before the first
meeting of the BYNC (July 14, 1939), Herb March, the head of the PWOC,
was shot at, and three days later, a mass meeting in support of the
PWOC included on the stage John L. Lewis, the controversial national
CIO founder, and Bishop Sheil, the Chicago clergyman who faced
criticism by the church hierarchy for his support of the CIO-led labor
In addition to this community-labor alliance, the BYNC was aided by the
rise of a new breed of priests in the neighborhood, at a time when the
priesthood was a popular career for many male Catholic Chicagoans.
These younger assistants tended to shy away from the ethnic enclave
mentality of the older Polish, Lithuanian, Irish, and Italian priests.
They were influenced greatly by Bishop Sheil, the founder of the
Catholic Youth Organization in Chicago and an activist in favor of
workers' rights and against racial intolerance.  Like Sheil, they
supported labor organizing in spite of the conservative clergy's
Aside from its support of local labor actions, early BYNC activities
included expansion of the free lunch program.  According to Slayton,
this was
  the first time that a federal program to distribute surplus
  food was used by a nonpublic organization and it was the
  prime example of the Council's ability to obtain from outside
  agencies the kind of assistance that the community so badly
  needed. (Slayton, 212)
The Council also convinced other institutions such as public
and parochial schools to establish their own free lunch programs,
and assisted them in their efforts to obtain federal financing
for these.  According to Slayton, the Council was a major source
of support for continuing this federal effort when opponents
attempted to end it in 1943 -- they organized a letter-writing
campaign that resulted in over 23,000 Chicago children sending letters
to their federal Congressmen.  The Council also advocated for children
by identifying sources of cheaper milk than was made available by the
public schools (who faced the constraint of acquiring milk from
politically connected dairies).
The Council also engaged itself in anti-delinquency/ anti-gang
programs, development of playgrounds and in-door recreation centers,
youth employment, nutritional education, dental services, and housing.
Its housing activities included a survey (via the schoolchildren) of
housing violations that were reported to the appropriate city agencies.
In addition, it sponsored neighborhood clean-up through the
distribution of garbage cans and the free loan of exterminating
The Council sponsored health awareness and education for
adults, including support for the local cancer society.
It was successful in improving the services in the neighborhood,
including a new post office and a new library.   It established
an office in which neighborhood residents could come to register
complaints about a variety of problems, such as broken street
lights or gang violence.[3]
It also established a credit union.
The Council achieved a wide base of support, but also its share
of opponents, including the local political machine.  The Democratic
political machine had used the provision of services as a means
of ensuring votes.  It was thus threatened by the Council's own
efforts to provide these services, and it attacked the Council in
the 1940s, requiring its removal from the offices of the Davis
Square Park district and tranferring Joe Meegan out of the district.
The Council found alternate headquarters, and thus survived the attack.
Slayton asserts that "[t]he larger successes of the Council were
achieved in the 1950s and 1960s.  During these decades, the
community organization stabilized the neighborhood and helped
it grow and prosper." (227)  During these years, the Council
increased its work in improving the area's housing, developing
home rehabilitation programs and obtaining the support of local
financial institutions for these.   Local vacant storefronts
were converted to housing, and new homes were built in the neighborhood
in spite of a mass exodus of industry and many urban dwellers to the
suburbs.  Slayton argues that these activities broke the backs of the
block-busting efforts of local real estate developers, although he does
not describe the complex issue of race and racial politics as they
played themselves out in the Back of the Yards these years.  The issue
of race is described in greater detail by Horwitt in his biography of
Alinsky, both in its effects on the Back of the Yards and in Alinsky's
other efforts.  I'll describe these in a separate posting, at a later
The significance of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, other
than the improvements it brought to this Chicago neighborhood and the
sense of empowerment it brought to the neighborhood residents, was its
influence in obtaining acclaim for Alinsky, and serving as the main
showpiece in his establishment of the Industrial Areas Foundation, or
I am interested in receiving any additional information, suggestions
for sources or articles, and alternative views on the history of the
Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council.  Was the Council unique in the
approach it took in involving local residents in improving their own
situations?  Were similar, less heralded schemes unfolding elsewhere in
the U.S., and, in fact, the rest of the world?  If so, what were the
unique elements in the Council?
[If you are interested in obtaining the review of Alinsky's
biography and the Stoecker/Stall paper, send e-mail to with the message: GET ALINSKY PACKAGE]
Wendy Plotkin
[1]See Lizabeth Cohen, MAKING A NEW DEAL (New York: Cambridge U.
Press, 1990) for a description of the effect of the Depression on
Chicago's ethnic, working class communities and a close examination of
the dual roles of the newly diverse Democratic Party and the labor
movement, especially the CIO and PWOC in Chicago, in bridging divisions
among ethnic and religious groups.
[2]See Noel A. Cazenave, "Chicago Influences on the War on
Poverty," in Martin V. Melosi, URBAN PUBLIC POLICY: HISTORICAL
MODES AND METHODS (Pennsylvania State U., 1993) for a
more detailed discussion of Alinsky's conflicts with the
Chicago Area Project, his initial sponsor in the Back of
the Yards, and with the social work establishment.
[3]Thus, in spite of the antipathy of the "founders" of community
organizing for the settlement houses, many of their programs were
similar to those offered by the settlement houses -- with the important
difference, they'd most likely argue, that they were organized and
controlled by community members and not outside social work
Prior and parallel to the development of community organizing as a
technique by Alinsky, there existed an interest inside of the social
work establishment for "community organization."  See Stanley Wenocur &
SOCIAL WORK IN A MARKET ECONOMY (Urbana:  University of Illinois Press,
1989) for the emergence of community organization as a "distinctive
method of social work akin to casework and group work" in the 1930s and
1940s.  They observe that
   Community organization originated less as a specfic
   method within social work than as a means by which
   social service providers could develop programs within
   a given community and mobilize the resources needed
   to support and sustain them. (233)
In the same year that the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council
was established (1939), the National Conference of Social Work
(NCSW) issued the Lane report on community organizing drawn from
discussions in six U.S. cities.  The NCSW's definition of
community organizing was much more tied to the social work
establishment and social work methods than was Alinsky's and
his followers, as the report
    identified community organization as a process of social
    work whose aim is `to bring about and maintain a
    progessively more effective adjustment between social
    welfare resources and social welfare needs'(Lane, 1939: 499)
    (Wenocur and Reisch, 236)